What is SymSys Society? 

The SymSys Society is a student group that seeks to provide community, academic guidance, and intellectual engagement to students who are interested in SymSys-y topics. The group hosts a number of events throughout each quarter, including faculty-student dinners, coffee chats with professors, academic reading groups, and student lunch socials. Though most students in the group are declared or tentative Symbolic Systems majors, we also have a sizable number of students within other majors, including CS, STS, MCS, philosophy, and economics.

What is Symbolic Systems?

Symbolic Systems is an academic program at Stanford that seeks to understand and quantify age-old questions about the mind and its relation to the world it creates. Symbolic Systems is composed of many sub-fields, including (but not limited to): artificial intelligence, cognitive science, neuroscience, human-computer interaction, applied logic, linguistics, and philosophy. Students who study Symbolic Systems are typically interested in questions relating to intelligence (both natural and artificial), language, meaning, information processing, and consciousness. Our program is analogous to cognitive science at other schools, but has more opportunities in subfields linked to computer science. 

For more information, visit the About page on the Symbolic Systems website here. If you are a Stanford student and would like to talk to current SymSys students, feel free to message a current board member in the major or any of the advising fellows here

What do SymSys students do?

SymSys students do many different things! Some examples of current students have been featured on our blog in the Humans of SymSys series, and our About -> Who are We? page lists a few SymSys-ers who were or are currently on the board of our student group. You can also look at examples of alums in industry and academia under Resources -> Alumni. Our students have become doctors, entrepreneurs, data scientists, software engineers, consultants, product managers, and UX researchers.

How is SymSys different from other majors at Stanford?

Choosing a major can be tough! Here are some other majors that undecided students often compare with SymSys.

Management Science & Engineering: This major blends engineering, business, and public policy. Students study areas ranging from economics and finance to computational social science. Like SymSys, MS&E students have opportunities to complete coursework in computer science, but there is a heavier emphasis on a path towards careers such as consulting, management, and investment banking. MS&E is closely related to the Decision Making & Rationality concentration in the SymSys major.

Science, Technology, & Society: Students in STS can receive a BS or BA degree, depending on whether they design their path to be more humanities or STEM focused. STS is a blend of socio-cultural coursework and technical coursework. Compared to SymSys, there is less of an emphasis on the “science of the mind” and more on societal-level interactions of people and technology. Therefore, STS students take more courses in areas such as history and anthropology.

Computer Science: The big overlaps between SymSys and CS are in the areas of AI and HCI. Students in both majors can concentrate in these fields, so SymSys students often collaborate with CS students on classes and research projects. For example, the AI concentration in SymSys closely matches the coursework requirements for AI depth in CS. Since SymSys, depending on your choice of concentration, has less rigid requirements on the number of CS courses you’ll need, there is more flexibility in how “CS-y” you want to be over the course of your degree or even within a single quarter. When choosing between the two, consider the areas where SymSys and CS don’t overlap. SymSys students do not have to fulfill engineering requirements such as physics, while CS students do not have to fulfill requirements in linguistics, philosophy, and psychology. Another difference is the size of the majors, since CS is much bigger than SymSys.

Mathematical and Computational Science: This major is like computer science, but with more of an emphasis on statistics and math. It’s labeled the “data science” major. Stanford doesn’t have a statistics major, so this major may be considered an appropriate substitute for that. There is less of an interdisciplinary focus in this major, since students do not pull in much coursework from the social sciences and humanities.


The first meeting of SymSys Society was in October 2013, and was called a “Sym Sys Students Town Hall Meeting.” Program Director Ken Taylor and Associate Director Todd Davies attended this meeting along with 10-15 students, and money was allocated to allow students to form a group and organize events. From then on, students met regularly, led by Erik Brockbank (BS ‘13, MS ‘14). Weekly lunches and quarterly happy hours recurred throughout the year, and occasionally the group organized special events such as an alumni panel.

At the end of the first year, a subgroup formed the board, whose role was to focus on activity and event planning. From then on, new and more formal activities were developed. The name for Springsgiving, now an annual tradition, was coined by Sydney Maples (‘17), and the idea of having coffee chats with faculty was developed by Jon Gauthier (‘17).

Thanks to Blue Sheffer and Harshitha Holmes for contributing information on the history of SymSys Society.